Made up of slides and swings and turrets that look like the towers of castles, playgrounds are a blank slate for childhood dreams. But the dream isn’t for everyone, at least not yet.
Clayton mother Jan Craig isn’t anti-playground, but she avoids them. The mother of two daughters, including a 6-year-old with a developmental disorder, Craig has had a range of bad experiences at playgrounds, from isolation to a concussion when she lost her footing accompanying her daughter.
“None of the children would interact with her, she’s special needs, her mom is helping her with every step,” Craig said. “For me, there’s no interaction with other moms because I’m very busy on the playground with her.”
For more than two years now, Clayton has been talking about building a universal playground, dubbed Celebration Playground, within East Clayton Community Park.
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The playground is planned to be a space for kids of all ability levels to play together, offering modified playground staples to meet Americans with Disability Act requirements.
After an initial fundraising push and design work, the project has stalled at less than 10 percent of its needed $700,000. On Tuesday, Clayton’s Community Recreation Foundation, the nonprofit in charge of raising money for the playground, announced Raleigh advertising group T&T Creative Group would be taking on efforts from here.
“I can tell you having grown up here in Clayton and to see the changes in the town and the changes in our recreational system, it’s just been phenomenal, particularly in the last 10 years,” said Dean Penny, director of the Recreation Foundation said. “Never have we tried to take on something as ambitious as what we’re talking about today. I’m extremely proud of being a part of helping to bring this universal playground to reality. Our foundation decided that in order to make this work, we needed to bring in some people to help energize this and energize the community and help us raise the funds.”
Lyn Purkerson, director of corporate development for T&T, said the goal is to have the rest of the money by next November. She said her expertise is in collecting money for corporations for charitable projects, while the previous fundraising effort had relied on finding grants or the occasional gift. A new naming structure offers naming rights for the overall playground at $100,000 and then sections and individual pieces from $50,000 to $2,500.
The playground is a passion project for Purkerson, who has a daughter with a disability. She said inclusion and education are important first steps in getting people of various ability levels to better understand one another.
“If we don’t talk about disabilities, we keep them hidden,” Purkerson said. “As a mother of a child with special needs, the greatest thing is to talk about it. This is what happens, this is what a seizure is, this is what happens when my daughter has a seizure. If you don’t tell kids what it’s like for these children with disabilities and what they live with, they can’t learn to interact with them.”
Johnston County school board member Donna White said the county has felt a suburban growth spurt since the construction of Interstate 40, particularly in young families with special-needs children looking for easy access to the Triangle’s renowned hospitals.
“When you build it, they will come, that’s what I-40 did for Johnston, Harnett, Sampson and the surrounding counties,” said White, who recently won election to the N.C. House. “I have seen what building I-40 did for our local counties in giving a very open route for people to move into Johnston County and the counties that border us and have easy access to Duke and UNC hospitals, which have special programs for autism and other developmental disabilities.
“We’re in a new era, and that’s why we’re here today,”
Purkerson said that around a fifth of the area’s children have one or more disabilities, including autism, and that other than Sassafras playground in Raleigh, most playgrounds are largely inaccessible or challenging for these families. She said Clayton’s project is intended to be a regional draw.
“What is happening now is there is a movement for inclusion play that’s happening nationally and internationally,” Purkerson said. “I’m really focusing on this not being something that just Clayton is tackling. We want it to be a destination location for the nine surrounding counties, statewide and nationally and beyond. We want to make a movement.”
Craig knows the same joys and concerns every other mother knows, but she said raising a child with a developmental disorder is a singular experience.
“It’s overwhelming, it’s tiresome, it’s lonely, it’s isolating sometimes, but there’s so much joy in it,” Craig said. “We as moms, we all want the same things for them. We want them to smile, we want them to be happy, have joy. We want them to play, because is that not the job of all our kids, really? ... This playground means so much to me. It means playtime and playgrounds won’t be an endangered species any more, these kids can come out in a safe environment, the moms will come out and meet each other.”